Thursday, June 10, 2010

Taxi!

After mentioning yesterday on the blog that TCM was going to show the two-reeler Bring 'Em Back a Wife (1933)—which features second bananas Billy Gilbert and Ben Blue as “The Taxi Boys”—I sat down in front of the TV set to watch it for the first time (while I recorded the short in the process—I like to “fill up” DVDs with some of the shorts the channel runs periodically between films). Those of you in the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear audience who don’t care for sad stories might want to stop reading this, because it ends in tragedy.

Here’s the plot: Gilbert and Blue are a pair of cabbies who work for a company supervised by the autocratic James C. Morton (who appears to have borrowed his moustache from Charley Chase). Ben’s a…well, I hesitate to use the word, but retarded seems to be the only one that fits…screw-up whose fluttery, spastic twitching gets on everyone’s nerves at the cab company—including the viewer. (Blue seems to be aspiring to be another Stan Laurel…but he just comes off as infuriating.) Billy, on the other hand, gets a few laughs with his reactions to girlfriend Geneva Mitchell’s “dancing” (her character does a series of eye-popping back flips that were clearly done by a stunt person—but are funny nevertheless) but he’s mostly channeling his inner Oliver Hardy. Anyway, Morton has designs on Geneva as well and when she informs him that there are a multitude of single cab drivers out on the streets he lays down the law at the company and decrees that any employee not shackled by the bonds of holy matrimony will be tossed out on their ear.

Billy doesn’t want to be fired—but with a little help from his pal Ben, boss Morton gets the idea that Billy is (l)awfully wedded…and so he recruits Ben to don drag and pass himself (or rather, herself) off as “Mrs. Gilbert.” Let me just say here that—and you can see from the photo on the left—that comedian Blue makes the most unconvincing female in the history of film comedy. Sure, I know a little suspension of disbelief is required and that two-reel comedies are not often dictated by logic…but honest to my grandma, anyone who would believe he’s a she has to be a complete imbecile. Jimmy C. is that imbecile. You see, Mitchell talks Ben into “vamping” Morton while she and Gilbert get thee to a minister to become betrothed—and somehow during all this Morton ends up jumping out a window (can’t say that I blame him).

What happens next? To be honest, I’m not sure. At this point in the two-reeler, the images on my TV set began to fade in and out. I remember seeing a title card that reads “Later” and Billy & Ben being stopped by a cop for speeding…as it turns out, wife Geneva is great with child and is about to deliver, as Gilbert nervously explains to The Man. Then my screen went blank.

At first thought, I was convinced that there were technical problems taking place at The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (ka-ching!) because of the fading in, fading out…and then total darkness. Immediately after all this, I began to hear sort of a high-pitched whine emanating from my television set. I tried to turn the TV off with the remote, but the whine continued. So I ended up pulling out the set’s plug from the outlet…and the whine stopped. Fifteen minutes later, I re-plugged the set…and then there was a loud “pop”—signaling that the beloved boob tube that had served Rancho Yesteryear at both the Athens and Savannah locations had expired. The set is no more.

Fortunately, a commenter named Ursula 2.7T (“from my sofa”) over at the IMDb has seen Bring ‘Em Back a Wife and she provides the missing details so that those of you still with this post won’t be on pins and needles:

Billy's taxi rumbles a little and bulges out at the sides, and enters the hospital garage after Billy parks it. The doc comes out to tell Billy he's had twins, and a moment later we see the taxi emerge from the garage followed by two tiny taxis -- very amusing! And then a third tiny taxi emerges, which confused me! :-)

What confused me was her overall evaluation of this two-reeler, which is as follows:

Cute funny little film. I've never heard of the Taxi Boys, but they were pretty entertaining. Ben Blue most especially, and Billy Gilbert was good too - he reminded me a bit of Oliver Hardy in appearance (physique and facial features).

I know comedy is subjective…and as I’m often fond of saying, “Some folks likes vanilla and some folks like chocolate.” But sitting through this short was a painful experience for me—and apparently for my television set as well, since it mysteriously died while the two-reeler was in progress. I think Billy Gilbert was an extraordinarily funny man, and while not everything he touched turned to gold on the whole he had a pretty good batting average when it came to making people laugh. I can’t say the same for his “partner,” Ben Blue, whom I’ve witnessed in other venues—The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1937), College Swing (1938), Panama Hattie (1942)—and Blue does not unfortunately succeed in convulsing me in the same manner…though I should point out that Blue did get funnier as he got older. (His brief bits in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming [1966] and The Busy Body [1967] are among the highlights of those two films, and I also recall him being hilarious on a Jack Benny Show telecast as an inept practitioner of legerdemain known as “Shandu the Magician.”)

Now, I’m always hesitant to judge material of this sort on the basis of seeing one two-reeler—so fortunately, that essay at The Third Banana that I linked to yesterday had two additional shorts in the “Taxi Boys” series available for viewing. The first one was Thundering Taxis (1933), a comedy that doesn’t feature either Gilbert or Blue but instead concentrates on minor comic Clyde Cook in a plot that involves a “taxi war” after the girlfriend of the owner of a cab company loses her dress in a mishap with a rival company’s driver. The author of “Bill and Ben, the Taxi Men,” Geoff Collins, is right when he observes that Taxis “is a hybrid, a '26 Sennett disguised as a '32 Roach.” (The short was the first in the series—filmed in 1932, but not released until a year afterward.)

Despite the reassuring presence of the familiar Roach background music, most of it is obviously shot silent or dubbed, and there are many unRoachy cartoon gags. Why? Because Roach was giving employment to a whole bunch of redundant ex-Sennett veterans. Del Lord had directed the Taxi Driver series at Sennett in '28 and this is an obvious retread. Bud Jamison is the irascible "Chief" - couldn't they get Ford Sterling? - and one of the drivers is Billy Bevan, clean-shaven but still recognizably squat and partridge-like. I have a soft spot for Billy Bevan; he was so ubiquitous in those Robert Youngson compilations, and things like Comedy Capers and Mad Movies, that many people of my generation grew up thinking he was one of the major players. He wasn't; but I'm always glad to see him.

If you like two-reelers with a lot of wacky gags and car chases, Taxis will definitely be your meat. Wacky gags are also at the center of the third and final Taxi Boys short I watched, Taxi for Two (1932)—which is a definite improvement over Wife, but still won’t bring any comedic foundations tumbling down in the interim. Once again, the inestimable Mr. Collins:

That's not all, folks. We'll leave you on a high note: Taxi For Two. The best! This one has everything: Billy's sneezing, Ben's exclamations ("Well, I'm a snipper snapper!"), Jamison as an intolerant cop, Charlie Hall as a drunk waiting for a streetcar, boomy-voiced shrimp Billy Bletcher, probably the earliest fragment of "Who's On First", beautiful location photography and even a crowd of people watching the filming. A sunny day in Los Angeles, mid-September 1932, captured forever. This is what the Third Banana is all about, a perfect matching of the Sennett-Lord slapstick with the more relaxed character-based Roach approach - and that background music! It's all there, and more.

Well…not really. But the slapstick sequences with Gilbert and Blue trying to push their cab out of traffic (and ending up hooking up with other vehicles, including a streetcar) are pretty impressive…if not particularly hilarious. Again, the main detriment to these shorts is the presence of Blue, of whom my Facebook chum Hal Erickson remarked: “The one big drawback to the Taxi Boys series is indeed Ben Blue. He plays a thorough imbecile, and it's a wonder that Billy Gilbert doesn't just break his neck at the first opportunity.” I also agree with Hal when he observes that ex-Ziegfeld Follies gal Geneva Mitchell “also brightened up several Columbia shorts like the Stooges' Restless Knights (1935) and Langdon's I Don't Remember (1935).” I’ve seen both of these and he’s right on the money—she also teaches Moe, Larry and Curly to dance in Hoi Polloi (1935), which is why her presence as Gilbert’s teacher in Wife sort of amused me.

My other Facebook compadre, Greg Hilbrich (who sweeps the floors at the wonderful website celebrating the Columbia Studios’ two-reel comedies, The Shorts Department), has a dissenting opinion—he thinks they’re funny, and “have a zany, silent film feel to them.” Greg further notes that “The first short in the series is probably the best (What Price Taxi [1932]). No Ben Blue in that one. Franklin Pangborn and Clyde Cook are the leads, with Gilbert cast as a jealous husband and some funny stunt dummy flying out of a window.” A third Facebook party, Aaron Neathery hisownself, remarks in the Third Banana piece that “this much-maligned little series turned out to be a one-of-a-kind comedy crossroads, fascinating in the extreme for its unique meeting of talents, and much, much funnier than such well-regarded Roach series of the time as, say, the Todd and Pitts shorts.” (Funnier than the Todd/Pitts series? Mr. Neathery is clearly insane.)

But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding—and I’m more than willing to let you judge for yourself: For your edification, here are Thundering Taxis (1933):

Bring ‘Em Back a Wife (1933)—don’t say I didn’t warn you:

And finally, Taxi for Two (1932):

And may God have mercy on your souls. On the off chance you might have enjoyed these two-reelers, there’s an individual hawking a set of nine of them on eBay—bidding starts at $9.99.

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7 comments:

Stacia said...

Oh no, it killed your TV! I hope you have a backup!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Oh no, it killed your TV! I hope you have a backup!

My sister Kat generously donated her old TV set (she got a new one during Christmas, with a built-in DVD player), which had previously been gathering dust in her garage. I found someone on craigslist who will come and take the old one away, eliminating the need for my father and I to lug it to...well, wherever old sets go to die, I guess. :-)

J.C. Loophole said...

I love Billy Gilbert in His Girl Friday- one of the funniest scenes in the movie!

Stacia said...

Hey Ivan, I just came here to find out if you were getting my comments because I'm not getting reply confirmations... lo and behold, you not only got the comment but replied to it! OK, so obviously, my email is b0rk3n. If you've emailed me recently, I didn't get it. AGAIN.

And we had someone buy our old TV that had "MUTE" burned into the corner of it because we used the mute button so much. It's amazing what people will buy and/or take for the free.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

J.C. opined:

I love Billy Gilbert in His Girl Friday- one of the funniest scenes in the movie!

I think Friday may be my very favorite Gilbert showcase. The way he delivers that one line: "Well, she's good enough for me!" is a thing of beauty.

And Stacia offered up this tidbit:

And we had someone buy our old TV that had "MUTE" burned into the corner of it because we used the mute button so much.

Oh, I have to tell Mom this one--the way my father punches a "mute" button she will die laughing.

Anonymous said...

The videos are no longer working. :( I would've loved to have seen some of these!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Anonymous remarked:

The videos are no longer working. :( I would've loved to have seen some of these!

YouTube giveth, and YouTube taketh away.